Chapter 52 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

A Hopeless Chase.

While the hunters were at breakfast, they were startled by the dull, heavy sound of footfalls, and the yelping of wild dogs. A quarter of a mile to the eastward they saw approaching them a large drove of springboks, accompanied by a band of giraffes. More than a hundred of the antelopes, and between twenty and thirty camelopards were flying before a few wilde honden.

The wild hounds of South Africa hunt in packs, and proceed upon a well-organised plan. The whole pack is never engaged in running upon the view. Some remain in reserve, and, guided by the voices of those that are running, frequently save space by cutting off angles. This they can do whenever the chase is not made in a straight line.

In this manner they relieve each other, and the pursuit is continued until the game becomes exhausted and is easily overtaken.

The perseverance, energy, and cunning displayed by these animals is something wonderful.

They do not commence a hunt until driven to it by hunger, and then it is often carried on for many hours, their tenacity of purpose being shown by their continuing the chase till their victim falls down before them. They were in full run after the springboks, and one of those animals was sure to reward their skill and labour by affording them a dinner.

The giraffes were foolish enough to think, or act, as though the wilde honden were hunting them; and in place of remaining still and permitting the dogs to pass, or turning to one side, the foolish creatures ran on with the springboks. At the time they came up with the hunters, they were already exhibiting signs of distress. To Groot Willem it was a gratifying sight. A herd of giraffes was at hand. Some of them were evidently young ones. Three of them he observed were apparently but a few weeks old. The very things for which he had travelled so far were now before his eyes, apparently coming to deliver themselves up.

It was not until the springboks swerved to the right to avoid the horsemen, that these little animals became separated from the giraffes. The latter continued on along the edge of the stream, while the former, pursued by the wild dogs, made off towards some hills to the north.

The speed of the camelopard is not quite equal to that of a horse, and the hunters knew that the desired objects could be overtaken; but what then? The giraffes might be shot down, but how were they to be taken alive?

There was no time for reflection. The necessity of commencing the chase, and the excitement of following it up, occupied all the time of the hunters.

After a sharp run of about two miles, the camelopards began to show further signs of distress. Already exhausted by their flight before the hounds, and now pursued by fresh horses, their utmost efforts did not save them from being overtaken; after a two-mile chase our hunters were riding upon their heels.

A portion of the herd, becoming separated from the rest turned away from the bank of the stream. There were but three who went thus,—a male and female followed by a young one,—a beautiful creature. Groot Willem gazed longingly upon it as he galloped by its side, and became nearly mad with the desire to secure it. The pace of the three had now been changed from a gallop to a trot, in which their feet were lifted but a few inches from the ground, and drawn forward in an awkward shambling manner, that proved them exhausted with their long run. Still, they ran on at a pace that kept Willem’s horse at a sharp canter.

In a short time he had got out of sight both of the main herd and his comrades. Nothing could be seen of either. He might have reflected that there was some risk of losing himself; but he did not. All his thoughts were given to the capture of the young giraffe.

Slower and more slow became the pace both of pursuer and pursued, the horse streaming with sweat, and nearly ready to drop in his tracks.

“Why should I follow them farther?” thought Willem. “Why should I kill my horse for the sake of gazing a little longer on a creature I cannot take?”

Though conscious of the folly he was committing, Willem could not bring himself to abandon the chase.

By his side trotted the young giraffe, beautiful in colour, graceful in form, and to his mind priceless in value. But how was it to become his? The coveted prize, although apparently but a few weeks old, and nearly exhausted by its long race, was still able to defy any efforts he might make to check its laboured flight.

He was now more than a mile from the river, and his horse was tottering under him, nearly exhausted by its long exertions. What should he do?

Stop, give his horse a rest, and then return to his companions. This was the command of common sense; but he was not guided by that. For the time, he was insane with excitement, anxiety, and despair. He was mad, and acted like a madman. The hopes and aspirations he had been for months indulging in were concentrated into the hour; and in that hour he could not yield them up. He was too much exasperated to reason calmly or clearly. A little extra exertion on the part of his horse might place him in advance of the three giraffes; and he might drive them back to the river.

“Yes,” exclaimed he, nearly frantic with the fear of losing what seemed so nearly gained.

“If I cannot catch this young giraffe, I can drive it. I’ll drive it to Graaf Reinet. It shall not escape me!”

Plunging his spurs into the foam-covered flanks of his horse, he sprang forward in advance of the three giraffes; and as he expected, they came to a halt. Pulling up, he wheeled round facing them, while the two old giraffes turned at the same time and made off in the back direction.

As they did so, one of them came in contact with the tottering calf, that for a second or so, seemed to become entangled between its legs; and at their separation, the young one staggered a pace or two and fell heavily upon the earth.